Talk about a change-up… Anybody who bought into the muscular popcraft of Sponge would probably blanch at an earful of its predecessor. Loudhouse was a short-lived Detroit band that tried to patch together the city’s vibrant techno scene and the hard-rock heritage established in nearby Ann Arbor by the MC5 and the Stooges. The quartet’s lone moment of distinction was an industrial revision of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” that only homed in on the original when guitarist Mike Cross took the occasional pass at the familiar four-note riff. A bit of play on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball and its use in the movie Point Break gave the song some extra promotional push, but not enough to save Loudhouse, which broke up after Virgin decided against releasing a second album. Frontman Kenny Mugwump (Greenbaum) split, and Vinnie (né Mark Dombroski, listed as Vin E.) moved up from behind the drum kit. As Sponge, he and the Cross brothers — Mike and bassist Tim — crafted guitar-oriented rock that was part Aerosmith, part MC5 and, thanks to the inventive (i.e., no blues clichés) slide approach of guitarist Joey Mazzola, fresh enough to fall within the modern parameters. Ultimately, Sponge is a song band; Vinnie appreciates the kind of catchy hooks and hummable choruses that made radio fixtures of “Plowed” and “Molly.” But these are subversive pop hits, colored by murky sonic structures that layer a bit of lead around their listener- friendly cores. Elsewhere on Rotting Piñata, Sponge shows an affinity for density and drone — particularly in “Pennywheels” and the metallic chug of “Neenah Menasha” — while “Giants” explores tense instrumental dynamics.
After myriad soundtrack and tribute album appearances (we’ll keep “Go Speed Racer Go” from 1995’s Saturday Morning: Cartoons’ Greatest Hits), Sponge came up with a few surprises on its second album. Displaying a mild fixation (two songs) with cross-dressers, Wax Ecstatic is markedly stripped down from the dense fury of Rotting Piñata, incorporating new instrumentation (piano, saxophone, cello) and working its way through such rootsy numbers as “The Drag Queens of Memphis” and the album-closing “Velveteen.” Sponge still rocks hard on “I Am Anastasia,” “Got to Be a Bore” and “Wax Ecstatic,” but the Bowie influence (“Silence Is the Drug,” “My Baby Said,” “Death of a Drag Queen”) is hard to miss.
After Wax Ecstatic sold poorly, Sponge renewed its bid for the charts with New Pop Sunday. Too bad Dombroski and company forgot to write the songs that might have achieved their goal. “Planet Girls” is catchy (if vapid) power-pop, and “Polyanna” is hummable enough. Still, lacking Rotting Piñata‘s hooks and Wax Ecstatic‘s grimy charm, New Pop Sunday is fairly forgettable.